In the history of every nation there are certain events which are so momentous that they imprint themselves on the national consciousness for generations to come. Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, and Sept. 11 remain vivid in the minds of those who experienced them, but those who have been born since have enduring mental images as well.
The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln is one of those events. We all have seen pictures or reenactments of the events at Ford’s Theater on the evening of April 14, 1865. Some may have visited the theater itself or the Peterson House across the street where the President died. Most people also know that the President’s body was carried by train from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, where the burial took place on May 4.
The exact route of the funeral train and the observances along the way are much less well known. In 2002 Scott D. Trostel published his book, “The Lincoln Funeral Train,” which recounts in minute detail the 13-day, 1,700-mile journey. Mr. Trostel has been a speaker at the Historical Society’s annual banquet, and three years ago when we were preparing a program to honor the passage of the funeral train through Pleasant Valley (as Plain City was then known), his book was an invaluable resource.
In 1865 the basic route of the train and other details were put into the hands of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and General Daniel C. McCallum, General Manager of the U.S. Military Railroads. The funeral train was preceded by a pilot train, which ran 10 minutes ahead to make certain the tracks were clear and to alert the people waiting along the tracks that the funeral train was approaching. The funeral train had absolute priority in all railroads. All other trains were required to halt one hour before the funeral train was scheduled and to wait on sidings until it passed.
The pilot train had one car for railroad officials. The funeral train itself generally consisted of nine cars, the next-to-last being the presidential car “United States.” Which carried the caskets of the President and his son, Willie, who had died in Washington in 1862. The “United States” had been built specifically to serve as a Presidential car (the Air Force One of its day), but had only been completed in February of 1865, so President Lincoln had never had the opportunity to use it. There were two sitting rooms in the car, one at either end, and it was in these that the caskets were placed. Willie’s was at the end nearest the front of the train and his father’s at the opposite end. The locomotive and all the cars were draped in black mourning bunting, and on the front of the locomotive, usually at the base of the smokestack, was a large picture of the late president, also draped in black. (There were some 40 different locomotives that pulled the train. Engines at that time were not reliable enough for one to be able to make the entire trip.)
All of the major cities in which funeral ceremonies were held had elaborate decorations on public buildings, and often arches across the streets through which the funeral procession passed. In the small towns, the decorations were simpler, but there were also some arches erected over the tracks — at least one of which, in Urbana, had to be taken down because it was too narrow to allow the locomotive to pass through it. Flags at half-staff, decorated with mourning ribbons, were seen everywhere, and the 36 states were often represented by 36 young women in white dresses with black sashes. Where the train passed during the night, bonfires were lit along the tracks.
The funeral train left Washington on April 21, and traveled through Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. It crossed New York state, turned south to Erie, Pennsylvania and arrived in Cleveland at 7 a.m. on Friday, April 28. After a service and viewing there, the train arrived at the Union Depot on North High Street in Columbus at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 29. The body was displayed in the Rotunda of the State Capitol and returned to the train in the evening.
The train’s route from Columbus to Indianapolis had been the subject of much debate. When Lincoln was traveling to Washington in 1861, he had gone from Indianapolis to Cincinnati to Columbus. But during the war, Cincinnati had become a hotbed of “Copperhead” activities. (The “Copperheads” were northerners who supported the Confederacy or were anti-war entirely. They were considered traitors in the North.) So a Cincinnati stop was vetoed, which seemed to leave Dayton as the obvious choice. But there were relatively few towns or stations along this route, so fewer people would be able to see the train, and there could have been potential maintenance difficulties as well.
Only a few weeks prior to the assassination the Columbus & Indianapolis Central Railway — the railroad that passed through Pleasant Valley — had completed work on their line near the Indiana border. This created a third alternative which would take the train through more heavily settled areas to Richmond, Indiana, and it was this route that Stanton and McCallum chose.
The pilot train left Union Depot at 7:50 p.m., just as a heavy rain began to fall. The funeral train departed at 8 p.m. with some 300 dignitaries aboard. It passed through Hilliard and proceeded west.
At 8:45 p.m., the funeral train, traveling at the prescribed speed of five miles per house, passed through Pleasant Valley. In spite of the rain, bonfires were burning in the countryside all along the tracks. At the depot, two American flags, draped in mourning, were held by two ladies. At 9 p.m. the train passed through Unionville, and shortly after, Milford.
In February 1921, 56 years later, the Plain City Advocate asked its readers for any reminiscences of the event.
“Mrs. Martha J. Bradley, South Gay Street, said she was in the crowd that assembled at the Dominy crossing, now known as the Abe Cary crossing. (Probably along Amity Pike in Canaan Township.) Two large bonfires had been built, one on each side of the railroad, as the train was to pass by after dark. The locomotives at that time were fired with wood, and this was piled along the track. The train did not stop but slowed down at this point.”
“Mrs. Mary Weaver McMahon, says that she was about 12 years old and accompanied her father, Jacob Weaver, to the depot. As near as she can remember it was about eight o’clock in the evening when the train passed through Pleasant Valley, as the town was then called. The train did not stop but slowed down so that the bystanders could get a good view of it. (Each car of the train was) draped in crepe and the stars and stripes. At each entrance was stationed a soldier with a musket, the muskets being also draped in crepe. Dim lights were visible, and although sad, was a very pretty sight.”
The depot and the railroad tracks are long gone now, but it does not take a great leap of the imagination to picture the scene on that rainy April night 153 years ago.
Rosemary Anderson is the vice president of the Plain City Historical Society.